As American track and field athlete Gwen Berry stood on top of the podium after claiming gold in hammer throw during last summer’s Pan Am Games in Lima, Peru, she could no longer be the silent, well-behaved and compliant athlete the international sports system wanted her to be.
Wearing a blue jacket with the United States Olympic Committee crest on it, and blue lipstick to match, Berry stood watching the American flag rise as her national anthem blasted around the stadium.
In her moment of athletic glory, lyrics and ideals that are supposed to represent Berry had never felt so empty, and certainly did not reflect her reality as a black woman in the United States.
What happened next, Berry has a hard time explaining. She didn’t plan to raise her right fist, but the pain, hurt and years of systemic oppression took over every fibre within her body.
As “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave” echoed, Berry lifted her fist to the sky, holding it aloft as the anthem finished.
“I just felt something. I don’t know what it was. When I was up there, I just felt something come over me. I can’t describe it,” Berry told CBC Sports from Houston. “It was like a spirit. I felt different. It was indescribable but I’ll never forget it or regret it.”
U.S. hammer thrower Gwen Berry raises her fist at the end of the national anthem at the Pan Am Games today. (h/t <a href=”https://twitter.com/sergeta?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@sergeta</a>) <a href=”https://t.co/gnBCEEDN1m”>pic.twitter.com/gnBCEEDN1m</a>
Berry knew there would be ramifications and that she would probably be vilified by many in her home country — in the same way more than 50 years prior Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos were vilified for raising their fists on the podium at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
Or the same way NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick was vilified and labelled unpatriotic for kneeling during the American anthem in protest of police brutality.
“Martin Luther King was assassinated for going against the system. Kaepernick’s career was assassinated. His character was assassinated. What do we do to a system that assassinates our peaceful people?” Berry asked.
“After my stance, I lost about $50,000. It affected my family and how I’m able to take care of them. I lost sponsorships. My career has been assassinated too. Or at least they’re trying to assassinate it.”
The International Olympic Committee reprimanded Berry and put her on probation for 12 months, outlawing any other acts of protest for a year.
In January, the IOC released its guidelines on protests during an Olympics. According to the Olympic Charter’s Rule 50, athletes are prohibited from taking a political stand in the field of play.
“It is a fundamental principle that sport is neutral and must be separate from political, religious or any other type of interference,” the IOC document states, urging “the focus for the field of play and related ceremonies must be on celebrating athletes’ performance.”
The IOC’s view is not shared by everyone.
Akaash Maharaj, former CEO of the Canadian equestrian team, has been an outspoken critic of what he says is hypocrisy shown by the IOC when it claims sport needs to be separate from politics.
“The IOC is guilty of hypocrisy in that statement,” Maharaj said. “There are few institutions as political as the IOC. If the IOC wants to take politics out of sport, then the IOC needs to take the IOC out of sport.”
Maharaj says the IOC is putting athletes in the difficult position of having to choose between representing their country and staying silent or speaking out and protesting against injustices.
“Silence in the face of injustice is complicity. And silence in the face of evil is itself evil,” he said.
While it took decades for Smith and Carlos to be remembered as heroes for that political gesture, raising awareness surrounding civil injustices against black people in America, Maharaj says their story is an important lesson for athletes today.
[Athletes] have to make terribly difficult choices if they are going to comply with the requirements of the IOC to remain silent or if they are going to use their voices.– Akaash Maharaj, former CEO of Canadian equestrian team
“They have to make terribly difficult choices if they are going to comply with the requirements of the IOC to remain silent or if they are going to use their voices. It’s a difficult choice. Because today, just like in 1968, there will be a price to pay,”
A price Gwen Berry knows all too well, yet she says she won’t be silenced.
There have been so many moments throughout Berry’s life that have made her realize she needs to use her platform as an agent of change and to shed light on police brutality in the United States.
She grew up in Ferguson, the same Missouri city where 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot by a white police officer in the summer of 2014. The shooting sparked weeks of protest and violent clashes with police.
“I went to the same parties as Mike Brown. I hung out with the same people. Went to the same school. Walked the same streets,” she said. “We grew up in the same area. That hit for me.”
It hit so hard, Berry flew home from an overseas track and field event to walk in the streets night after night with protesters in her hometown.
“You could feel the tension on the street. I’ve never felt anything like that in my entire life. It was sad. People were sad and angry. And confused. How in the world did this happen?” Berry said.
“It was the most impactful thing I’ve experienced in my life and from that day forward I’ve become a rebel, if you want to call it that.”
There’s been no turning back ever since.
Gwen gave birth to her son, Derrick, when she was just 15 years old. He turns 16 on June 9 and Berry is doing her best to prepare him for what life is like as a black man in America.
“I feel like the best way I can prepare my child and educate my child to be able to handle what’s going on, is going as far back as I can in history. I have to tell him the true history of America. I have to tell him about how people truly feel about him,” she said.
Berry, now 30, says the same injustices are playing out all over again with the death of George Floyd, a black man who pleaded for air as a police officer pressed a knee into his neck. His death in Minneapolis came after tensions had already flared after two white men were arrested in May for the February shooting death of black jogger Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, and the Louisville police shooting death of Breonna Taylor in her Kentucky home in March, which also attracted national attention.
Berry is devastated and exhausted by it all, unable to watch the video of Floyd gasping for air until days later.
“I didn’t want to see what I knew was going to happen. I finally watched it. I was mortified. I cried. And then asked what I could do,” she said.
Berry is in Houston, joining the protesters, all while continuing to train for the postponed Olympics in Tokyo.
“Nothing can change or will change until the system changes. And I feel like in my lifetime I will not see the total change of America. The system has to be burned to the ground. The entire system has to be rebuilt. The Constitution has to be redefined. We have to redefine what it means to be an American citizen,” Berry said.
“Let it burn. I absolutely stand with the rioters and protestors.”
Had the Olympics taken place this summer and had Berry made it there to compete, her probation period would still be in effect. But with the postponement of the Games, she will no longer be under probation for a potential podium protest in the summer of 2021.
“They better watch out,” she said.